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Thursday, November 3, 2022 | Retrospective


The 70s and 80s were a golden age for horror. Early Stephen King novels The Shining and Carrie were getting the film treatment, Tom Savini was just getting started in his special effects career, and Freddy Krueger was sharpening his finger knives. Meanwhile, Hollywood screen legends were in their 70s and 80s, many of whom were still working, and some chose to take their final (or near final) bows in horror films. This list is ranked on the quality of the performances and the films themselves, but also on the level of departure from a previously held screen image for the actor involved.

  1. Mickey Rooney – SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT 5: THE TOY MAKER (1991)

Mickey Rooney played the good guy and best friend to Judy Garland in 10 films throughout the 1930s and 1940s, and in the process built his career on playing the boy next door who just wants to put on a show. But in 1991, Mickey Rooney put on an entirely different kind of show in Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker. In this direct-to-video slasher, Rooney plays Joe Petto who, alongside his son Pino, owns and operates a toy store. However, something is wrong with Pino. This film is a weird one, and it’s weirder still when you consider the great films that Mickey Rooney made earlier in his career. Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker was an image departure for Rooney, but not for the better.

  1. Fred Astaire – GHOST STORY (1981)

Fred Astaire’s career goes back to the days of vaudeville, when he and his sister formed a singing and dancing act that lasted well into their adult years. But when she left the stage, Fred continued his career solo. Shortly thereafter, he teamed up with Ginger Rogers and they became perhaps the greatest dance duo of all time, making 9 films together from 1933 to 1949. In the latter part of his career, Astaire enjoyed a variety of roles ranging from serious drama (On the Beach, 1959) to voiceover work in children’s programming (Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, 1970). In 1980, Astaire took a turn into the horror genre when he starred the 1981 film adaptation of Peter Straub’s novel Ghost Story. Astaire plays Ricky Hawthorne, an elderly man who forms a club with his friends who are also in their twilight years. But these men share a secret and that secret begins to haunt them—literally. Astaire does not abandon the refined and dapper image that he cultivated in his earlier films, but rather he incorporates it into his role as Hawthorne and he ended up creating something new but equally superb. Ghost Story was Astaire’s last film and he proved his versatility as an actor to the very end.

  1. Martin Landau – ALONE IN THE DARK (1982)

In 1959, Martin Landau burst onto the screen in two of that year’s highest-grossing films: Pork Chop Hill and Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. He played Rollin Hand in Mission: Impossible and made other television appearances in The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, and Columbo. In 1982, Landau played the pyromaniac ex-minister Byron “The Preacher” Sutcliff in Alone In The Dark. The film follows three psychopaths who escape from the local mental asylum during a blackout and go on a mission to murder their new psychiatrist. Landau gives a chilling performance alongside co-stars Jack Palance and Donald Pleasance. This underrated film was featured in a much-deserved segment in the 2021 Shudder documentary, In Search of Darkness, Part II.

  1. Hal Holbrook – THE FOG (1980)

To most of the world in 1980, Hal Holbrook was Lieutenant Briggs in Magnum Force and Dr. James Kelloway in Capricorn One. But to horror fans that year, Hal Holbrook was Father Malone in John Carpenter’s The Fog. The movie takes place in Antonio Bay, a quiet town with a dark secret. When a thick fog rolls into town one night, it brings the ghosts of dead sailors with it. Father Malone has family ties to a tragedy that lies at the centre of the town’s history, and the ghosts have come to settle the score. Holbrook went on to appear in other horror films such as Creepshow and Girls Nite Out, but it was his appearance in The Fog that tops them all.

  1. Farley Granger – THE PROWLER (1981)

Farley Granger was best known for his roles in the Alfred Hitchcock films Rope (1948) and Strangers On A Train (1951), but his career also extended into musicals and, in his later years, serious roles on Broadway. His biggest foray into horror was as Sheriff George Fraser in Joseph Zito’s The Prowler. The film is set in Avalon, California, where college students are preparing for the town’s first big graduation dance in 35 years. (The last time the town had a graduation dance was in 1945, which ended in the slaying of two teenagers.) Meanwhile, the sheriff goes out of town on a fishing trip and leaves his deputy in charge of things just as the killings begin all over again. The Prowler is an effective slasher due in large part to Tom Savini’s phenomenal special effects. Farley Granger’s explosive death scene in The Prowler is legendary and ranks amoung Savini’s finest work.

  1. Max von Sydow – THE EXORCIST (1973)

By the time Max von Sydow was cast in The Exorcist, he was already an established actor and long-time collaborator with Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. His roles in those films rank amoung some of the greatest performances of all time: a disillusioned knight who returns from the Crusades and challenges Death to a game of chess in The Seventh Seal, a distraught father avenging the rape and murder of his daughter in The Virgin Spring, and a doctor dealing with his wife’s mental illness in Through a Glass Darkly. Even though he was already a household name in Sweden, Max von Sydow achieved mainstream North American success when he appeared as Father Merrin in The Exorcist. Max von Sydow would have ranked higher on this list, but given his earlier work with Bergman, his role of Father Merrin was less of a departure and more of a progression in his career as an actor.

  1. Beatrice Pons – MOTHER’S DAY (1980)

Beatrice Pons was a character actor who spent decades playing benign supporting roles on television shows such as Car 54, Where Are You? and The Phil Silvers Show. She enjoyed a moderate level of fame, but it was her role in Charles Kaufman’s 1980 slasher Mother’s Day that forever burned her image into the public’s collective mind. Pons (credited as Rose Ross) plays the mother of two vicious sons who kidnap and terrorize women—all for their mother’s viewing pleasure. Pons cemented her place in horror history when she uttered (in that Southern drawl) what was arguably her most famous line: “Darlings, you have made your mother very proud.”

  1. Roddy McDowall – FRIGHT NIGHT (1985)

Long before he appeared in Fright Night, Roddy McDowall was a well-known actor who worked in many genres including science fiction (Planet of the Apes), historical drama (How Green Was My Valley), and family fare (Lassie Come Home). But it was his appearance as TV horror host Peter Vincent in the 1985 horror-comedy Fright Night that made him a fan favourite. The film follows a teenager who is convinced that his new neighbour is a vampire, but both his girlfriend and his best friend laugh him off as insane. So he goes to the only person who would understand and help him out: Peter Vincent, an ex-actor who built a career playing vampire hunters onscreen and who now works as a horror movie host on late night cable television. McDowall’s Vincent jumps between clumsy awkwardness and confidence in a way that never feels unearned or forced. Fright Night remains a cult classic and McDowall’s excellent performance is a huge part of that.

  1. Joan Bennett – SUSPIRIA (1977)

Of all the actors on this list, Joan Bennett perhaps suffered the least from typecasting. She had played a wide variety of roles in her career: from Amy March in Little Women and glamorous matriarch Ellie Banks in Father of the Bride (1950) to the femme fatale in film noirs such as Scarlet Street and The Reckless Moment. Even so, her role in Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece Suspiria was such a departure even for her that it warrants the number two spot on this list. Bennett plays Madame Blanc, the deputy headmistress at a ballet school that operates as a front for a coven. Bennett uses her glamorous image in an effort to make Blanc appear well-mannered and harmless. But Ellie Banks she is not, which becomes clear as the film progresses. In the final scene of what would be her final film, Joan Bennett performs a satanic ritual in a back room with the other witches. Talk about going out with a bang.

  1. Chuck Connors – TOURIST TRAP (1979)

Chuck Connors was a Hollywood A-list actor as well as an ex-athlete with NBA and MLB experience. Despite his decades-long acting career, he was best known for his role as Sheriff Lucas McCain on the television show The Rifleman (1958-1963). Each week, viewers tuned in to watch Connors play the kindly widower/sheriff who took down criminals with his double-barrelled shotgun and subsequently turned all the fighting and killing into teachable moments for his young son. The show was so successful that typecasting became a problem for Connors. Years later, he began to move away from his previous image with roles in Soylent Green and on the television series Roots. But his departure from the “kind and honourable dad” image was complete when he played Mr. Slausen in Tourist Trap (1979).

The film begins with five teenagers whose car breaks down on an empty back road. When one of them walks to an abandoned gas station looking for help, it is easy for the viewer to assume that they have seen this same old story a thousand times. But the movie immediately turns away from cliche and goes straight out into left field so fast that even today the film has lost none of its power to shock. Enter Mr. Slausen: a kindly gentleman who lives nearby and offers to help the teens out. Once again, the story seems to go in an old, tired direction, but layer after layer of weird left turns ensue making Tourist Trap one of the finest horror films of the era. The role of the demented Mr. Slausen might have failed in lesser hands, but Connors pulled it off so well that one wishes that he had gone on to make more films in the horror genre. As a final kiss-off to his long-held film image, Connors uses a double-barrelled shotgun throughout the film similar to the one that he carried on The Rifleman.


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